On the night of September 20, 1777, while encamped in Chester County, PA just outside Philadelphia, a division of American soldiers was defeated in a swift surprise attack by a slightly smaller British force. American propagandists, in an effort to galvanize Patriot support, would make the most of this encounter to show the British Army as overly brutal and bloodthirsty. On the foggy morning of December 9, 2019, members of the ERW paid a call on this battle site; Paoli Battlefield Historical Park.
After the American defeat at Brandywine on September 11, George Washington, desperately in need of ammunition, moved his army north of Philadelphia, to Reading, to resupply. He ordered Brigadier General Anthony Wayne to remain behind with his Division of the Pennsylvania Line to harass the British forces, under the command of Lieutenant General William Howe, who were marching virtually unopposed to the American capital city of Philadelphia.
On September 20, General Wayne’s roughly 2,200 troops were encamped in a field near the General Paoli Inn, in present-day Malvern, PA. As evening approached, Wayne, warned by locals that his presence had been detected by the British who were encamped nearby at Tredyffrin, ordered his pickets doubled and sent out horsemen to patrol the roads. Having indeed become aware of the nearby Patriot forces, Sir William Howe ordered a surprise assault on the Americans.
At around 10 pm, British Major General Charles Grey and a force of around 1,200 troops left camp. Consisting of cavalry, light infantry and Scottish Highlanders of the 42nd and 44th Regiments of Foot, Grey’s force was considerable. In order to maintain the element of surprise, General Grey ordered his troops to remove the flints from their muskets, thereby negating any accidental discharges as they approached the unsuspecting Americans and earning him the moniker of “No-Flint Grey”. The British would, therefore, attack with cold steel.
Around midnight, the British force struck. Blowing through the American picket lines with relative ease, the Redcoats attacked in separate waves with shouts and battle cries that completely surprised and unnerved Wayne’s Continentals. Confusion ensued as Americans went down from slashing cavalry sabers and stabbing bayonets. Soldiers attempting to make their escape from the camp were hampered by farm fences and, in one spot, a disabled gun. Wayne would lead a hastily assembled rearguard, however, to cover the withdrawal of the Continentals. Approximately 53 Americans were killed in the fight, with over 100 wounded, and more captured or missing, bringing the American losses to roughly 272. Conversely, the British lost just four men killed in the engagement. The American dead were buried on the site.
In the days following the battle, the Americans Continentals would regroup; around 1,900 of them survived, living to fight another day but Anthony Wayne and his Pennsylvanians would never forget this brutal assault. As American forces attacked the British during the Battle of Germantown a few weeks later, the cry of “Remember Paoli” was heard. American propagandists would later describe the fight at Paoli as a massacre, claiming the British brutally hacked down and bayoneted Americans as they tried to surrender.
Anthony Wayne would exact his revenge on the British in July 1779 with his own nighttime bayonet assault against the British-held Hudson River post of Stony Point. Taken completely unaware, the British forces were soundly defeated in this engagement, the post was quickly captured, and the American General would earn his own nickname of “Mad Anthony”.
In 1817, not long after the end of the War of 1812, a monument was placed over the mass grave of the 53 Americans killed at Paoli. A second monument was placed at the site in 1877 for the observance of the centennial of the battle.
Today, the sight of the Battle of Paoli in Malvern, PA has been kept in near pristine condition. The 40-acre park is owned by the Borough of Malvern and is administered by the Paoli Battlefield Preservation Fund. The American grave site is owned by the Paoli Memorial Association.
3 thoughts on “ERW Weekender: Remember Paoli!”
Just returned home from participating in the Wreaths Across America ceremony at Paoli Battlefield. George Washington from Valley Forge, who was the keynote speaker, laid the final wreath for the soldier found and buried in the field. Participants, myself included, laid 52 wreaths at the monument grave site for the soldiers, known and unknown, who are buried there.
An atmospheric account.
A small point perhaps but, to ensure surprise, General Grey ordered his troops to march with muskets unloaded to avoid an accidental discharge alerting the enemy camp ( This would also enable the British to distinguish between friend and foe in the darkness, since those firing could be assumed to be the enemy). If for any reason, loads could not be drawn, then flints were to be removed. Major Maitland, H.M. Marines, CO of the 2nd Light Infantry battalion remonstrated, saying that his battalion always marched with muskets loaded and he would be answerable for his men . Genl Grey relented and the 2nd L.I., forming the first wave, attacked with loaded muskets and bayonets fixed.
Oh- as the Pennsylvanians came dashing out of the mist at Germantown on Oct 4th 1777, it was reported (many years later) by Martin Hunter, then a young subaltern in the 52nd, that as they pounced on the 2nd LI piquets they yelled “Have at the Blood hounds! Revenge Wayne’s affair!” (‘affair’ being international officers’ slang for a military encounter).
Others, including Wayne himself referred to the battle as “the action near The Warren” – ‘The Admiral Warren’ being the name of the other pub near the American camp, in addition to the ‘Paoli Tavern’, the inn which supplied the name of the battle most familiar today.
Thank you for your comment. I’m aware of the light infantry with loaded muskets; I didn’t feel the need to include it in the account, I probably should have for a complete story, My focus on this piece, I guess, was mainly on the American myth that Paoli was a massacre, which it was not. Plus, I was so impressed with the preservation of the site.